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Games e-learners play

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by Clive Shepherd
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Perhaps the single, biggest obstacle to the future success of e-learning is just plain boredom. Too many courses deal with abstract concepts rather than real-world practice; they're passive, when learners want to be doing things; they're sterile, when what's required is a little excitement. In other words, they're just plain dull. In this article, Clive Shepherd argues the case for simulations and games as engaging, life-like and highly-interactive learning activities, capable of providing the foundation for second generation e-learning products that really deliver on the hype.

Contents
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Learners just want to have fun
It's only pretend
Safety in the software
Games have their place
Who's game?
Case study: Artemis
Case study: SmartForce
Reading

Learners just want to have fun
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What's the single, biggest obstacle to e-learning continuing to grow and fulfilling its potential? Is it the cost of development? The lack of human contact? The reluctance of training departments to make the change? No, none of these is irresolvable. The problem is much more likely to be plain boredom. Too many courses deal with abstract concepts, rather than real-world practice; they're passive, when learners want to be doing things; they're sterile, when what's required is a little excitement. In other words, they're just plain dull, and dull won't hack it with a generation reared on techno music, action movies and video games.

Of course, dullness isn't the exclusive privilege of e-learning - so much of our education and training is dull, whether it's delivered face-to-face or at a distance. We could all do with a bit more fun in our lives. According to US motivational guru, Anne Bruce, people who have fun at work are not only doing their job, they are doing it at a higher level. And what goes for work goes for learning too. 'When learning isn't fun, it's not learning', says Roger Schank, author of Virtual Learning. 'Listening to endless lectures and memorizing countless facts and figures aren't fun activities. What's fun is doing.'

We'd probably all agree that the most fun, and the most effective, learning experiences that we've had have been when we've been able to get stuck into something practical - a project, a case study, a chance to try things out for ourselves. But, according to learning games advocate Marc Prensky, effectiveness - let alone fun - is not always the primary driver for trainers: 'The problem with most companies' use of learning technologies, from the learner's point of view, is that they are used today primarily to make things easier for the trainer. Most of what exists so far in terms of web and other technology used for learning is so elementary or old-fashioned in its learning approaches that, apart from remote delivery, it adds little to learning and often subtracts from it.'

So what's the answer? David Klaila, Managing Director of Celemi Learning Business, believes that 'e-learning consumers should expect programs that incorporate the same innovative tools and techniques used in the computer gaming industry - such as graphics, interaction, and skill-building challenges - to deliver an educational experience that's compelling, informative, and fun.'

Games and simulations are capable of pushing back the boundaries of what we can expect from an e-learning experience, and not just in terms of gimmickry and entertainment value. Engaging, life-like and highly-interactive learning activities are capable of providing the foundation for second generation e-learning products that really deliver on the hype.
 
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It's only pretend
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Let's start by coming to terms with simulations and games, as they apply to the world of e-learning. A simulation is an imitation of a real-world process or situation, with which the learner can interact. A game, on the other hand, is an activity with a goal and rules, in which the learner competes against others, real or imaginary, or to better their own, previous attainments. A simulation can be set up as a game and a game can simulate reality, but the two can also work independently - you could have a simulation of a chemical process, with which learners can experiment, but with no goals or rules; or a game built around a simple quiz, with no attempt to simulate any real-life situation.

What the two have in common, is that they can both form the basis of an engaging and stimulating learner experience, breaking the mould of the traditional 'tell and test' methodology.

Games and simulations sit somewhere in the middle of a continuum of learning methods, from the most abstract to the most concrete. At the abstract end, we have pure theory, devoid of practical examples and applications. At the other end is action learning, based on real problems and real work tasks. Simulations and games, along with classroom-based role plays, and on-job coaching, sit between the two, providing the opportunity to build real skills, but in a protected, supported environment.

Simulations and games vary enormously in their underlying models. Some are continuous systems, capable of continually changing their status. A classic example of this is a flight simulator, responding in real-time to the user's manipulation of the controls, the plane's state and a host of environmental factors. On the other hand, a simulation or game may work in a series of discrete steps, as in a business game. Some readers may recall Lemonade Stand, a game which ran on the old Apple II. Each day, in response to a weather report, you decided how much lemonade you were going to make, the price you were going to sell it at and the number of advertisements you would place. Having entered your decisions, you were immediately given a run-down on the day's results. Your bank balance rose or fell on the basis of your decisions - extremely simple, lots of fun and you probably even learned something.

Like music equipment, your simulations can be extremely posh and hi-fi or the equivalent of a 60s music centre. Fidelity comes in two dimensions: physical fidelity, which is the extent to which the simulation looks and feels like the real world, and functional fidelity - the extent to which it acts like its real-world counterpart. The challenge is to balance fidelity, and the benefits that this may bring to learning effectiveness, with the costs that fidelity implies. Perhaps surprisingly, simulations can work well even when relatively lo-fi. Think back to some of the early video games - 2D platform games were certainly capable of getting the adrenaline going (I have the sweat stains to prove it) and text-based adventures were as intellectually challenging as their modern 3D equivalents. 

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Safety in the software
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So what do simulations and games provide us that we can't easily obtain using more traditional methods? First of all, they provide an environment in which it is safe to make mistakes. Flight simulators cost millions of pounds and you can bet that airlines don't spend this money to entertain their staff. They know that a plane crashed in a simulator is one that has cost them no money and, more importantly, no lives. Similarly, if you're the proud owner of a nuclear power plant or an oil rig in the North Sea, you'd rather that your employees practiced where they can both do no harm and come to no harm.

But you don't have to own some exorbitantly expensive kit for simulations and games to make good business sense. E-learning developer Epic Group have made simulations for audiences as diverse as recruiters at British Telecom and futures traders at Shell. Another developer, Maxim, created a simulation of the American Express credit card business in an imaginary country called Amexia. In each case, the benefits are similar - users of the software can experiment to their hearts' content with different approaches to realistic problems, without risk of industrial tribunals, trading losses or business failure.

There's an old joke about two strangers who meet up on the streets of Manhattan. One says to the other: 'Excuse me, but how do you get to Carnegie Hall?' The other thinks for a while, then offers the simple response: 'Practice'. The simple, if sometimes unpalatable, truth is that nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished without hard work. Where so much training falls down is in the balance between theory and practice - there's far too much of the former and only a token effort at the latter. The problem is that practice takes time and that there are so many facts, principles, procedures, rules and concepts to get across. The result? You cover the syllabus but learner behaviour does not change one iota. Who's benefiting from this charade?

Simulations and games, when they're well-designed, provide the opportunity for repetitive practice. The most popular programme in one learning centre back in the early 80s, was a typing tutor fashioned on Space Invaders. As menacing hordes of invaders attacked in the form of letters of the alphabet, your task was to type them out of the sky. The letters came quicker and in tougher combinations, and so your typing improved.

Of course, there's no point in designing an exercise in which the poor learner makes the same mistakes over and over. Imagine a simple maths game, in which problems are generated at random. The game can be designed to diagnose the learner's difficulties, point the learner to worked examples and explanations, and then create further problems that allow the learner to build their confidence with easy examples that gradually build in complexity. 

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Games have their place
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Simulations and games can fit in with very different design strategies and philosophies. At the simplest level, they can be used as a way of providing practice in applying a process or procedure to which the learner has already been exposed through a formal, structured lesson. This is how simulations are normally used in online IT training - you teach a task and then have the learner try it out using a representation of the live application.

A simulation can also be used more adventurously as an inductive tool - leading the learner towards possible learning conclusions - as a component in a discovery-learning strategy. The simulation not only provides a safe environment in which the learner can explore new ways of doing things, it might even generate a motivation to learn in the first place. What better way to lift a learner out of that comfortable state of 'unconscious incompetence'? Tasks that look so easy from the sidelines, prove to be more difficult in practice: 'I didn't know I couldn't do it until I tried' is a familiar response to a well-designed simulation.

A simulation need not be a solo experience - there are opportunities for group games too. Says David Klaila: 'E-learning can be especially effective when conducted as a team exercise. When two to four learners gather around a computer, they can discuss strategies and interact in much the same way as in a classroom'. When that's not possible, David suggests that e-learning developers take a page from the gamer's book and make online discussion facilities available, so learners can ask each other questions and provide each other with encouragement.

Not all designers are as convinced about the value of group collaboration in simulations. According to Roger Schank: 'When people get together in groups, their behaviour changes because they are afraid to fail in front of their peers. Peer group collaboration may actually inhibit learning.' It is the lack of group collaboration that makes Schank favour simulations over classroom role-plays, which many learners will find too competitive: 'Computer simulations work so well because they enable users to fail in private'.
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Who's game?
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Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest users of simulations and games for training are the US military. The DoD has invested more than $1 billion in JSIM, its high-end simulation technology and uses digital game-based learning to train soldiers, sailors, tank-drivers and strategists. And its not just the safety arguments that drive this - the US military are aware that their new recruits are probably the first generation that grew up with computers, and who are liable to get bored with traditional classroom instruction.

Of course, simulations play an important part in IT training. Vendors like NETg use simulations to allow the learner the freedom to explore in a 'safe environment', with no risk to real data. In fact, NETg boasts that they incorporate more simulations in its training content than any other vendor, with some courses including over 900! 

But it is in the soft skills arena that some of the most innovative applications can be found. Simulations and games make it possible to ditch the tired old 'tell and test' strategy and bring about learning by discovery. According to soft skills publisher Xebec McGraw-Hill: 'Discovering for themselves helps students own the information, which in turn makes it more certain that they will apply what they've learned - whether that's a change in attitude or behaviour, or applying a new technique'.

Another publisher, Knowledge=Power,  uses game-like 3D technology to build virtual 'learning worlds' for learners can explore. Even the potentially tedious pre-test has been re-designed as a quiz game. And at e-learning solutions provider Wide Learning, stories and cartoon characters figure extensively. Says Wide's Sam Woodley: 'Storytelling is a great way to get people in organisations to communicate. Often these stories can be humorous and humour can change moods and unlock creative thinking.' We are talking about learning, aren't we? It's easy to forget.

Used to its potential, computer technology opens up possibilities for doing so much more than copying the classroom, but to develop these new approaches takes time. Remember that the earliest TV dramas used no more than a single camera pointing up at the stage to record a live performance - it took decades to really develop the potential of the medium. When it comes to learning, we already have the technology - the networks, the multimedia capability and the sheer processing power. What we need now is the imagination and the enterprise to harness this technology and deliver the learning experiences of the twenty-second century. 
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Case study: Artemis
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Artemis Management Systems, a leading supplier of project management software, launched its own computer-based training simulation product in November 2000 to meet the training requirements of those new to project management. Called Artemis OnTrack, the simulation provides training in the traditional project management measures of cost, quality and resources, providing an effective, action-orientated learning environment that allows people to practice their skills and make mistakes using a lively interactive, game-style approach.

A 'live case study' simulates the running of a project using a mix of audio and visual content, exposing participants to the problems, delays, conflicts and unexpected events that are likely to occur with a real project. These situations demand immediate decisions and, as a result, the group gain experience of working under pressure and making team-based decisions.

Artemis OnTrack was designed following an extensive examination of the training requirements of 800 project managers and has already been used to train over 5000 people in 13 different countries. The training is conducted in teams of up to four, over three separate sessions of three to four hours, covering the planning, execution and de-briefing stages.

With OnTrack now so widely in use, we should be increasingly optimistic about the chances of software projects coming in on time and budget? Cynics will maintain that e-learning's good but that it can't yet deliver miracles!
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Case study: SmartForce
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One vendor who is taking the potential of simulations really seriously is SmartForce. Its software simulations replicate GUI environments and allow learners to practice complex tasks associated with common PC applications. Programmers benefit from simulations in which they can enter code in all the ways supported by the live software.

Business-modelling simulations are used in subjects such as finance and accounting. They allow students to manipulate a wide variety of financial variables in a virtual company and learn how these variables interact.

For people-orientated subjects, SmartForce are using role-play simulations that challenge students to solve real-life problems in realistic situations. The student interacts with virtual characters and consults a wide variety of resources, including white papers, presentations and web links, in order to realise the goals of the scenario.

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Reading
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Digital game-based learning by Marc Prensky, published by McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Virtual learning by Roger Schank, published by McGraw-Hill, 1997.
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E-learning's Greatest Hits by Clive Shepherd
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E-learning's Greatest Hits
by Clive Shepherd
Available now from Above and Beyond

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